A Special Effects Camera System

For the whole picture, Vist the TIMETRACK website at www.virtualcamera.com.

Gary Stix SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, November, 1996 www.sciam.com/1196issue/1196techbus5.html

Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle depicts a world in which a substance called ice-nine causes water molecules to freeze solid. As a consequence, any living organism that touches it turns into a statue of ice. When Hollywood decides to make the movie version of the book, the cinematographer Dayton Taylor might want to contact Dayton Taylor. The New York City-based production manager for independent filmmakers has devised a special-effects technique able to produce frozen images eerily similar to the one concocted from Vonnegut's imagination.

...The promise of such an interactive system may allow designers to drop the adjective from "virtual reality."

As described by Taylor:
"The system uses an integrated, computer controlled array of tiny still cameras with a variable number of total lenses, or individual points of view, to creat virtual tracking shots. Since the system is everywhere along the path of a single shot at once, it can be anywhere at any time, including being in two, three, four, or literally hundreds of different positions simultaneously. The points-of-view are so close together that sequencing them yields the illusion of a seamless, moving, point-of-view, even though the system itself is generally stationary during the exposure of the entire shot."


for Purple Prose by Dike Blair

Filmmaking changes our sense of time and space--and our changing sense of time and space influences how we make films. Technology is so central to filmmaking that technical innovations inevitably breed aesthetic ones. The camera crane is the updated deus ex machina of Greek theater--the audience/viewer is positioned as a god. We swoop into the first scene of a film like the unblinking eyeball of a descending angel. We have so completely internalized the Peckinpah, slo-mo blood bath that car crashes are now remembered cinematically. The heightened state that we've experienced in high adrenaline situations like a car crash was "named" by the acceleration of film through the camera--Peckinpah's brilliance was his skill at matching a film technology with a mode of consciousness. I was recently introduced to a special effects camera that will definitely find a place in the vocabulary of film and video making and may also change the direction of 3D computer modeling. It could even nudge the way we perceive the world.

I now face the task of describing the TIMETRACK(tm) camera The camera is actually an array of many still cameras. Imagine a bicycle chain and imagine that each link in the chain is an individual camera with its own lens and shutter. Place an object inside the chain so that it is surrounded by the series of individual cameras. Now, thread one strip of film through the length of this chain of cameras. Open all the shutters simultaneously for an instant and exposed on your strip of film are a series of images from one moment in time--but exposed from the specific and unique angle of each link in the chain. When this film is projected, each frame will play sequentially a different angle from one moment in time giving the illusion that the camera is moving (see pictures). The result of a circular alignment of the array would look like a Hitchcock/DePalma circling pan but with the subject frozen in time. Now imagine the TIMETRACK(tm) camera as an array of individual video cameras and that there is a software program that can coordinate the collected digitized images of moments in time. With this system, the camera's subject can appear to advance in time, slow down, freeze, leap from point to point, or appear to move both forward and backward in time in the same shot. For example, by placing a TIMETRACK(tm) dome over the finish line of an Olympic running event, the viewer could see the finish from 360*, the point of view sweeping around the runners at will. That is just one of a vast number of possibilities that present themselves once the digitized photographs are entered into a computer. More on that later.

The TIMETRACK(tm) camera is the creation of Dayton Taylor. Taylor had been working with ideas of multiple cameras taking simultaneous pictures as early as the mid-eighties when he was an undergraduate studying electronics and film making (his student film, "Love's Choice," is in MOMA's permanent collection) in Boulder, Colorado. After school he moved to New York City to become a production manager for independent films. He concieved what would become the TIMETRACK(tm) camera in 1992 and two years later, with the help of friends, he began constructing a primitive prototype. He cut-up two 35mm cameras to create the basic module and then made a rubber mold to produce multiple copies. Once assembled and outfitted with the appropriate hardware for film advancement, shutter timing, strobe sync, etc.--the TIMETRACK(tm) camera was born. Next came the formation of his company, Digital Air, Inc., to the juggle the offers to build a more sophisticated version of the camera. Sometime this year, the camera will be rented for use in films and commercials and companies like Panavision have shown more than casual interest in the system.

It's very possible that the TIMETRACK(tm) camera will radically alter the approach to making and the look of Virtual Realities. Until now, it has been assumed that VR will be a computer crafted environment of great complexity. A sophisticated cataloging of "imaginary" colors, textures, volumes and lighting in an abstract coordinate space. The ultimate objective of VR is to be a convincing representation of space--something which approaches the photographic or cinematic in terms of credibility. Taylor's 3D representation of space is photographic to begin with, so creating convincing special effects would be fairly easy. And attaining photographic credibility could be done more efficiently in terms of speed and space--the grail of the digital world. With a CAD animation, the user can turn an object to view it from any angle. Potentially, large arrays of Taylor's camera gives the user a similar interactive point-of-view in a non-animated, "real" space.

Like many inventions, the timeliness of the appearance of Taylor's camera evokes an almost mystic chicken-and-egg paradox. Our consciousness is in the process of adapting to the unique time and space of the computer screen and VR--but we need more cinematic vocabulary to describe it. For Taylor to fully realize the potential of the camera that enhances that vocabulary, he needed the computational power that is available only now. How will the camera be used by filmmakers? I see the camera as a potential Rashomon of vision--the number of truths are the same as the number of cameras. I see the camera as a miniature spaceship capable of orbiting an actor's head as if it's a small moon. I see it as the detective scanning a crime scene for clues and then as the interrogator circling the seated suspect. Maybe the camera will alter our sense of time and space much like the jump-cut edit or time-lapse photography has. Taylor mentions Chris Marker's inspired use of the still camera in La Jetee as an inspiration for his camera. Perhaps, sometime soon, someone will use Taylor's TIMETRACK(tm) camera to make a film like La Jetee, one that captures the multi-perspective, dreamtime quality of our computer consciousness.

For the whole picture, Vist the TIMETRACK website at www.virtualcamera.com | HABIT / crew